Living for the City
Andrew Chan on Jungle Fever

At the height of its popularity, soul music earned its reputation for plumbing emotional depths and encouraging social awareness. But in movies, more often than not, the genre is dismayingly used in unimaginative and superficial ways. Michael Mann’s Ali is a good example: each time the film becomes stiff and tight-fisted just as it’s supposed to be hitting an emotional high point, Mann insists on plugging in predictable selections from the Sixties R&B songbook. A lovers’ spat is scored to Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way”; the death of Malcolm X is announced by the surging orchestration of “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The choice of music feels at once incidental and obligatory, and though together these two songs constitute only a few minutes in a two-and-a-half-hour biopic, it’s painful to listen to such deep reservoirs of feeling and artistry being used as short cuts for what the dramatically lit, coffee-table-book images lack. In Ali, Mann treats black pop in the same thoughtless way Lawrence Kasdan did in The Big Chill—as a string of oldies-but-goodies that reproduce our stereotypes of a particular historical moment.

Since even the best pop songs tend to hew to a single definable mood or circumstance (a simplicity that becomes even easier to take for granted as time passes), how can a filmmaker use an old chestnut in ways that are emotionally ambiguous and politically suggestive? And how can a film do justice to the complexity and history of the music it employs without making music the center of its attention or the object of excessive reverence? Jungle Fever is the only movie I can think of that provides a multifaceted, forward-looking response to these questions in the context of classic R&B. Like many of the finest Spike Lee joints, the 1991 film is inconceivable without its carefully crafted soundtrack, and the music smooths out and opens up new ways of entering into Lee’s dynamic, purposefully choppy structure. Despite being one of the director’s most passionate urban symphonies, this is a work so aesthetically and thematically scatterbrained, so willfully contradictory, that it often gets lost in a career packed to the brim with provocations. But more than in any of Lee’s other work, incoherence serves as a source of its vitality, giving him the license to avoid the neatly defined philosophical binaries of Do the Right Thing and the pieties of Jungle Fever’s immediate follow-up, Malcolm X.

A patchwork of disparate narrative fragments, Jungle Fever is always threatening to come apart at the seams. Lee casts a wide geographic net, hopping from Harlem’s brownstones to its drug dens, from white-collar Manhattan to predominantly Italian Bensonhurst, with a comic-book snappiness that never allows us to get comfortable in any of these worlds. The multiplicity of locations is matched by a laundry list of volatile subject matter. Selling itself as an unflinching look at interracial romance, the plot centers on architect Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) and his tryst with an Italian-American secretary (Annabella Sciorra) that disrupts his blissful middle-class family life. Lee introduces one new character and subplot after another, setting aside a considerable amount of screen time to address drugs, prostitution, intrafamily violence, color discrimination, and the glass ceiling for African-American professionals. As he navigates this intimidating web of social phenomena, Lee remains remarkably focused on a specific tone of anguish, until the film finally reaches operatic levels of hysteria near its ending.

Lee installs as both his surrogate and his foil no less than Stevie Wonder, who composed and performed twelve new tracks for the film that ended up being his most acclaimed work since his 1980 album Hotter than July. That earlier triumph may have marked the end of Wonder’s creative peak (after which the singer shifted decisively into Hall-of-Fame autopilot), but the comparison lends resonance to the Jungle Fever songs. The mix of light New Jack Swing and syrupy love ballads flirts with the image that began to solidify in the decade after Hotter than July: that of a kindly, ever-smiling community leader whose sharpest political commentaries had been defanged when he began to receive the widest possible mainstream acceptance. The predictable comforts of Wonder’s romanticism put the heart into Lee’s soapboxing tendencies, making the film’s barrage of verbosely worded arguments and counterarguments easier to swallow. At the same time, the inclusion of Wonder as the film’s voice of conscience carries symbolic weight for anyone intimately familiar with his music. As with Lee, part of Wonder’s appeal is that his aesthetic tastes run alongside his commitment to honoring and building upon the legacy of black pioneers. Just as Wonder delighted in name-dropping everyone from Crispus Attucks to Ella Fitzgerald in songs like “Black Man” and “Sir Duke,” Lee is constantly saluting his forebears—a gesture that seems both self-humbling and aggrandizing, as if he wanted us to believe the cosmic hand of history were writing his career.

By giving Wonder a significant degree of authorial power, Lee makes clear how much his richly intertextual style appropriates musical structures, particularly the tropes of call-and-response and repetition-and-revision upon which gospel, blues, jazz, soul, and sample-based hip-hop were founded. The film’s sound design is reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s conceptualization of jazz as a “great big loudspeaker” blaring everyone’s private intrigues and mundanities out into the neighborhood. Different forms of speech ping-pong back and forth, bits of seemingly improvised conversation giving way to heavily scripted, ethnically caricatured speechifying. The music enacts the same type of collisions: Terence Blanchard’s mournful jazz trumpet wafts through one scene, Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” through another, then Wonder’s keening voice comes in like a family elder to suggest some basic conflict-resolution strategies for the embattled characters: let’s just say “I love you,” he advises, and let’s all be brothers and sisters. At times his songs are so politely unobtrusive and placed so low in the mix, we can easily forget he’s there. But this all changes in the film’s most audacious set piece, which stops us in our tracks with the sole repertory selection from the Wonder catalogue coming in at full blast.

Departing from the pleasantries of Wonder’s newly written material, the slow synth bass line of “Living for the City” introduces a mixture of doom and anticipation. The pivotal sequence in which the song is featured occurs in the film’s final half-hour, and opens with a shot of a neighborhood holy-roller clutching her Bible, intoning the Lord’s Prayer as Wonder’s groove picks up the pace and becomes more and more densely layered. The camera begins to follow Flipper as he inquires about the whereabouts of a crack-house named the Taj Mahal, where he hopes to find his junkie brother (Samuel L. Jackson) and retrieve the TV he’s stolen from their parents’ apartment. For the first time in the film, Wonder’s voice is placed front and center, forcing the scene’s action and dialogue to stay afloat amidst the song’s novelistic details of inner-city poverty that unfurl in brief, rhythmic couplets: A boy is born/in hard-time Mississippi/surrounded by/four walls that ain’t so pretty . . . One distinct narrative is placed on top of another, establishing two equally compelling temporalities, plotlines, and sets of characters that progress simultaneously. The increasingly chaotic noise of Harlem—the stray talk of passersby, the hissing of crack rock being lit—is only slightly set apart from Wonder’s intricately produced track, which rises forward and falls back in the mix according to how much emphasis Lee wants to place on the onscreen action. But part of the suspense lies in hearing how these two aural fields inexorably merge.

By the end of this seven-minute segment, “Living for the City” is barely distinguishable from the film’s diegetic audio. On an aesthetic level the accompaniment could not be a more perfect fit. Wonder’s mid-tempo rhythm percolates insidiously, becoming all the more dreamlike when coupled with DP Ernest Dickerson’s slowly roving, intermittently off-balance camera. Viscerally affecting images—Lee’s repeated tableau of crack addicts floating by in a dark-blue haze; Wonder’s pithy synopses of overlapping injustices—are continually consumed by the film’s escalating visual and sonic disorder. But one has to wonder why Lee didn’t choose the more thematically appropriate “Too High,” off the same 1973 album Innervisions, which tells the cautionary tale of a woman who ends up dying from her drug habit. A close reading of the scene exposes a clear disconnect between Flipper’s brief journey into his brother’s drug-addled consciousness and the song’s lyrical content. “Living for the City” narrates the tale of a Southern black family torn apart by economic pressures: a father who works “some days for fourteen hours,” a mother who “goes to scrub the floors for many,” and a son who migrates to New York City to seek out better employment opportunities. The scene in Jungle Fever, on the other hand, uncovers the deepening tensions between the African American community’s rising bourgeoisie and its persistent underclass, played out by a pair of brothers who seem to have always been indifferent to each other.

This narrative distance is at its greatest when the audio becomes most indecipherable. Before launching into a gravelly voiced coda, Wonder inserts a spoken, non-musical section in which the song’s struggling young male lead arrives in the city innocent and wide-eyed, gets conned into transporting drugs, then is arrested by white policemen who berate him with epithets. The myriad sound effects featured in this interlude include blaring sirens and slamming cell doors, but the way the song is layered on top of the den’s all-black crowd yelling and cursing in a drugged-out stupor, it becomes difficult to identify which sounds belong to Wonder and which to Lee. The song’s classic set-up of black victim vs. white aggressor clashes with Lee’s resolutely unsympathetic depiction of crack addicts. Is this disjuncture in any way fruitful, or does it reveal Lee’s inattentiveness to the lyrics? Is he simply taking advantage of the song’s epic grandeur, powerful rhythms, and instant recognizability? This may not be Lee’s sharpest piece of social criticism, but one haunting implication we can take away from the mismatch is that not much has changed for black poverty in the time between the original release of “Living for the City” and the making of Jungle Fever. The drug den reflects the same degradation and squalor Wonder’s song lamented almost two decades before, and Lee draws a line between past conditions of oppression and the current generation’s self-destructiveness. Even as Flipper’s economic success would seem to represent racial uplift, his brother’s addiction stands in for a greater spiritual deadlock—one that appears self-inflicted but is interwoven with the history of white oppression.

For all the sugary-sweetness of his public persona, Wonder earned his name as a true renegade—one of the only artists to successfully rebel against the Motown hit-making machine. At the height of his career, he eschewed what he called “baby-baby-baby” songs in favor of political, high-concept soul—black music that could go toe to toe with the contemporaneous renaissance of album-oriented rock. By the late Seventies, he was venturing to the furthest ends of avant-garde R&B, but “Living for the City” remains probably his highest-charting hit to merge experimental sensibility with pop songcraft. In placing it in the context of Flipper’s nearly surreal descent into the underworld, Lee implicitly highlights a turning point in soul music history, a time in the early Seventies when the genre’s major artists were enlisted to score some of the first Hollywood films directed by African-Americans. Emerging mostly from the blaxploitation genre, these films carved out a place for R&B at the heart of cinema: Isaac Hayes was paired with Shaft, Curtis Mayfield with Super Fly, Marvin Gaye with Trouble Man, James Brown with Black Caesar. The musicians brought a level of inventiveness and ambition commensurate to the wide canvases they had been provided, but also pushed against the films’ racial stereotypes, embedding commentary and conscience into their lyrics. It was during this period that Wonder’s albums acquired a new cinematic sweep, a love for gritty narratives, and a deeper social conscience—a heady combination that defines album tracks like “Big Brother” and “Cash in Your Face.” It’s appropriate that Jungle Fever implies that historical connection right at a moment in the early Nineties when gangsta rap was supplanting soul as black music’s preeminent chronicler of inner-city life. Lee’s use of “Living for the City” not only asserts the relevance of soul in a culture increasingly dominated by hip-hop discourse, but it also highlights the continuity that has always existed between socially conscious R&B and rap. Just as Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy couched their rhymes in a mix of Black-power funk samples, or 2Pac would later place the Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child” alongside his own tormented lyrics, Lee partakes in a tradition that invokes familiar touchstones of the past as entry points into a tumultuous present.

I’ve often wondered about the viability of the idea that a narrative film can embody both the values and aesthetics of a particular musical genre without simply stuffing its soundtrack with representative tunes. Godard’s Breathless seems like one of the more obvious successes—a work that features a prominent jazz score but also adopts the music’s syncopated rhythms as a central part of its cinematic style. Lee takes a less groundbreaking approach by organizing scenes around individual songs, but the results are often no less exhilarating. The most iconic example, Do the Right Thing, uses the repetition of a single hip-hop anthem (Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”) as an important structuring device, letting the song accumulate its power as it competes with less blatantly political modes of expression—including the Eighties R&B and orchestral jazz that fill out the rest of the score. But even in this most celebrated ode to militant hip-hop, Lee’s strategies invariably lead to a caricatured understanding of the music, as if each black-pop genre had an intrinsic, easily definable moral valence. R&B is cast as the accompaniment to midsummer relaxation and lovemaking, to which rap represents the necessary, consciousness-raising alternative.

Even with his knack for such simplistic gestures, Lee has proven time and again—perhaps most brilliantly in his videos for Prince’s “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” and Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us”—that his confrontational cinema is a perfect match for political pop. But in Jungle Fever he illuminates the musical foundation of his own socially conscious expressions. This is a film permeated with soul music conventions and references, down to a death scene that bears an eerie resemblance to the murder of Marvin Gaye. Here Lee’s abrasiveness mimics two lyrical modes that appear in “Living for the City” and throughout soul: the documentary, which captures a social condition with vivid immediacy, and the jeremiad, which bemoans that condition in oracular, Biblically inflected terms. Both “Living for the City” and the drug-den scene in which it plays aim for realist detail, but eventually fall under the spell of the cynical, prophetic visions they describe. Samuel L. Jackson takes another hit and stares glassy-eyed into space, as the song’s multi-tracked, mock-angelic chorus of “No, no, no” brings the sequence to a close. This unsettled agony finds its cathartic resolution in the film’s last shot, in which Flipper lets loose a howl of pain for the apocalyptic state of his race—a sound that echoes not only Wonder’s polyphonic “No” but also the whoops and hollers that have cut through many a soul song. The film’s unshakable power lies in how it creates these kinds of rhymes across a landscape of social chaos. As it builds toward its finale, we watch and listen as a classic song that aspired to the condition of cinema gives fuel to a film aspiring to the condition of music.